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Seoul-centring Korea

The imperialism at the heart of the emerging global system is nicely expressed by Zbigniew Brzezinski’s formula, which was evidently taken to heart by the Bush administration:

… the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.

The presidential statement to Congress in September 2002 referred to only two ‘rogue states’, meaning ‘barbarian’ states that brutalise their own people, ignore international law, strive to acquire weapons of mass destruction, sponsor terrorism, ‘reject basic human values and hate the United States and everything for which it stands’. They were Iraq and North Korea, and both constituted ‘a looming threat to all nations’. As I write, war with the first is imminent; with the second, it seems to be approaching rapidly.

In October 2002, North Korea admitted to possession of uranium enrichment centrifuge technology, in December it disconnected the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) monitor cameras and then sent home the inspectors from its mothballed graphite nuclear plant, and in January it withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Although it insisted that ‘at present’ it was merely starting up again (for energy purposes) the reactors mothballed as part of the 1994 ‘Agreed Framework’ deal with the US, neighbouring states were understandably nervous at the prospect of unregulated plutonium production, while the enrichment technology (of which it admitted possession but not use) has no known use other than for the production of Hiroshima-type weapons. Around the world, it was reported that an ‘outlaw’ regime was defying the world and threatening regional and global order.

On 13 February, the International Atomic Energy Agency referred North Korea to the UN Security Council. Director-General Mohammad El Baradei declared it to have been ‘in chronic non-compliance with its safeguards agreement since 1993.’ The question now is whether North Korea will persist in rejection of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, with the Security Council moving gradually from appeal to pressure to sanctions, or whether a satisfactory formula can be found to permit of its return. Sanctions, according to Pyongyang, would be tantamount to ‘a declaration of war’.

The demands, presented to Pyongyang by presidential envoy James Kelly in October 2002, were of the kind that only regime change could satisfy. After the Kelly mission, Washington continued to insist that North Korea back down unconditionally, but in January 2003 a bold ‘new proposal’ was unveiled. Provided Pyongyang abandoned all nuclear ambitions and accepted strict and intrusive inspections, it could be given assistance with thermal power generation and food, and a guarantee against US attack.

However, the offer was predicated on a North Korean climb-down, made more unlikely by the hostile rhetoric that accompanied it. Donald Rumsfeld reiterated his statement of readiness to fight, and win, wars on two fronts, and North Korea was accused again of being a ‘terrorist regime’ with ‘one or two nuclear weapons already in possession and sufficient material to construct six to eight more, and missile capacity to reach the continental United States’. In his State of the Union address for 2003, President Bush also made a point of declaring his loathing for Pyongyang as ‘an oppressive regime [that] rules a people living in fear and starvation’, and whose ‘blackmail’ would not be tolerated. Long-range bombers and an aircraft carrier were alerted for deployment to the peninsula. Pyong-yang responded, not to the new proposal but to the threats, with its own threat of missile or weapons tests or even a pre-emptive counter-strike, involving ‘unlimited use of means’.

The underlying thrust of US policy does not change. The core sentiment is one of fierce antipathy that goes back to the Korean War in the 1950s. The hatred for Kim Jong Il matches that for Saddam Hussein, and it seems that nothing short of regime change, in Pyongyang as in Baghdad, can assuage it. A participant in White House strategy meetings comments: ‘Bush and Cheney want that guy’s head on a platter. Don’t be distracted by all this talk about negotiations. There will be negotiations, but they have a plan, and they are going to get this guy after Iraq. He’s their version of Hitler.’2 Nautilus Institute’s Peter Hayes says: ‘What they really mean is this: after we force Iraq to comply with its disarmament obligations, we’ll focus fully on North Korea to burn another hole in the map.’ Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is reported to be drawing up plans for a pre-emptive strike. The Japanese Defence Agency head, Shigeru Ishiba, declared that Japan, although committed by its constitution to the non-use of force in the settlement of international disputes, would launch a pre-emptive attack on North Korea if it thought missiles were being readied for launch against it.

The global hegemon puts itself above the law, reserving to itself the right to employ violence, virtually without restriction, in pursuit of its global interests while labelling ‘terroristic’ those who oppose it. Even as Washington demands that North Korea (and other) countries meet various obligations, disavow any nuclear plans and substantially disarm their conventional forces, the US itself has for three decades ignored its own obligations under Article 6 of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty to ‘engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament’ and is therefore itself in ‘material breach’ of the NPT treaty. The US has also withdrawn from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Convention on Global Warming (inter alia). It signals its intent to pursue nuclear hegemony including the domination of space; deploys as ‘conventional weapons’ newly developed weapons of terror and mass destruction, including cluster bombs, ‘daisy cutters’ and nuclear ‘bunker busters’; holds its enemies indefinitely without legal warrant, representation or rights; proclaims its right to assassinate and to launch pre-emptive war against its enemies, and refuses to recognise the jurisdiction of any international court to try the actions of itself or its citizens. This is not ‘roguish’ or ‘evil’ because it is covered by imperial prerogative.

From Pyongyang’s point of view, the US was in breach of the 1994 Agreed Framework almost from its inception. Promised two light-water nuclear reactors (capacity: 2000 MW) by a target date of 2003, with half a million tons of heavy oil per year supplied in the interim for power generation and moves ‘towards full normalization of political and economic relations’ and a non-aggression pact, Pyongyang froze its nuclear development plans for a decade, hoping to hold the US to its word and to secure removal from the list of terror-supporting states. Pyongyang adhered scrupulously to the ‘Framework’, as Colin Powell recognised in February 2002.3 It made every effort to associate itself with the mood of the international community after September 11 by promptly signing the outstanding international conventions on terrorism and declaring its opposition to terrorism in the UN General Assembly. In the end it got nothing.

Washington under George W. Bush came to look on the Agreed Framework as a one-sided North Korean commitment to abandon its nuclear program. Even though until 2001 the Department of State to could find no terror connection other than the continued refuge in Pyongyang of the ageing Japanese perpetrators of a 1970 hijacking, Bush nevertheless chose to describe North Korea as part of the ‘axis of evil’ and his government to name it, along with other non-nuclear countries, as a potential nuclear target. The ‘2003’ pledge by the US was never taken seriously. Delays were chronic—construction on the site only began in 2002 when a few large holes were dug in the ground and some foundations laid.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s energy sector steadily deteriorated. In November 2002, the US stopped the scheduled oil supplies, and in January 2003 cancelled the entire deal, saying there would be no nuclear plant of any kind, ever.

As for the commitment to ‘full normalization of political and economic relations’, that was never taken seriously. The ‘axis of evil’ insult was plainly contrary to it and the nuclear threat was reiterated in 2002. The US actions taken after the Kelly visit merely confirmed the already existing situation: Bush’s Washington was contemptuous of the Agreed Framework and glad of a pretext to be rid of it.

From the Korean War (1950–53) to today, Pyongyang’s nuclear program was always a response to perceived US nuclear threat. It took the view, not unreasonably, that the only defence that Washington respected was nuclear weapons. Even the IAEA’s Mohammad El Baradei says that the US seems to teach the world that ‘if you really want to defend yourself, develop nuclear weapons, because then you get negotiations, and not military action.’4 While Washington wrung its hands over Pyongyang’s outlaw behaviour, Congress was being pushed to authorise small nuclear warheads, known as ‘Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator’ weapons, or ‘bunker busters’, specially tailored to attack North Korea’s bunkers and underground complexes. Yet it is not Washington but Pyongyang, the barbarian, that is accused of ‘intimidation’.

The path Pyongyang seems to be taking has the potential to lead to nuclearising of the peninsula and the region, and is therefore disastrous, however understandable the motivation. It is said by Washington to be seeking to become a nuclear power, a ‘rogue’ regime pursuing incomprehensible policies that threaten innocent neighbours. Yet the alternative interpretation—that it seeks nothing so much as an end to the half-century of threatened nuclear annihilation—is at least as plausible. Pyongyang repeatedly says it would submit to an international inspections regime, provided that its security is guaranteed. The justice of its demand is, however, almost nowhere recognised. It is treated with something akin to derision by Washington, and by Washington’s allies. It is not the 50 years of intimidation, but the call to end it, that is treated as roguish. Pyongyang is undoubtedly recalcitrant, but its recalcitrance is matched by Washington’s arrogance, pre-emptive unilateralism, and refusal to be bound by international law, treaty, multinational institutions or global opinion.

In much of the debate over ‘nuclear proliferation’, the nuclear privilege of the acknowledged nuclear powers—US, Britain, France, Russia and China—passes without question. Yet it is increasingly clear that US attempts to combine nuclear privilege with deterrence and non-proliferation do not work. As Jonathan Schell says: ‘Deterrence equals proliferation, for deterrence both causes proliferation and is the fruit of it.’ The call for non-proliferation, or abstinence, falls on deaf ears when issued by those who cling to their own privilege.

South Korea, after 55 years of tragic confrontation with its northern compatriots, has in the past decade staked its future on a ‘Sunshine Policy’. It has good reason to try to understand the complex crisis Pyongyang faces and is motivated by a desire to take whatever steps might be necessary to avert its political and social collapse. South Korea’s agenda is therefore fundamentally different from Washington’s. It has little sense of threat from the North, and instead sees the need to help North Korea deal with its economic, security and diplomatic problems, even by dint of providing a security ‘guarantee’, as incoming president Roh Moo-Hyun suggested during his campaign.

As a senior advisor to the South Korean president put it, the North Korea problem will only be resolved ‘when the country suspected of building nuclear weapons [i.e. North Korea] doesn’t feel any security threats and builds relationships of trust with other countries’. South Korea therefore aims to ‘create an environment in which North Korea will feel secure, without nuclear weapons. After all, that is the quickest way to have it give up nuclear development’.

Following Kim Dae Jung’s visit to Pyongyang in June 2000, South Korea engaged North Korea on a wide range of economic, cultural, sporting and transport fronts. The Seoul–Pyongyang railway line, cleared of mines, waits now only on the completion of a narrow 300-metre strip of track to link North and South (and thereby create a connection from South Korea, and Japan, to Russia, China and Europe). The service could be opened in months, and is blocked only by Washington’s objections. The pipeline is full of joint South–North projects, including one to open Gaesong city, which is in North Korea but less than 100 kms from Seoul, as a special economic zone; that too is now frozen. Although Seoul has been slowly accomplishing something once thought impossible—the restoration of a measure of trust between north and south, one Korea and the other—its ‘Sunshine’ policy is dismissed in Washington as vain and worthless, or worse, dangerous appeasement. Delegations are entertained and contracts signed and implemented, mutual trust is engendered, fear diminishes and confidence grows, but from Washington’s perspective Pyongyang is ‘evil’, and there can be no compromise with it.

The developing crisis not only pits Washington against Pyongyang but also potentially opens a rift between Washington and Seoul. The relationship with Seoul has been frosty since the advent of the Bush administration and its avowal of an explicitly imperial agenda. South Korea’s Nobel Prize-winning former president, Kim Dae Jung, was insulted by Bush on the occasion of their first meeting (in Washington in March 2001), and was treated high-handedly for the remainder of his term in office. Seoul was sceptical of the Kelly mission to Pyongyang in October 2002, believing the Americans misread the signals—perhaps deliberately. In February 2003 the South Korean prime minister pointedly rejected the official US government position that North Korea was in possession of nuclear weapons. That prompted a riposte just a few days later from CIA Director George Tenet insisting on the US’s ‘very good judgment’ that Pyongyang possessed one or two plutonium-based nuclear weapons, as well as long-range missiles to deliver them. On this crucial issue, the world chooses to believe the CIA, not the South Korean prime minister.

The contest between Washington and Seoul concerns not only intelligence—the assessment of what is going on in Pyongyang—but also strategy and tactics—how to respond to it. The gap widens between the thinking of the global imperium reliant on massive force projection capacity, on the one hand, and the small Asian country struggling still to achieve national unification, heal the wounds of civil war, and establish the modest goals of peace and development, on the other.

The new president, Roh Moo-Hyun, took over on 25 February. Like Kim Dae Jung, whom he succeeds, Roh is a pragmatist, expected to continue the line of his predecessor that: ‘Love him or hate him, Kim Jong Il has been and will be in the foreseeable future the dictator with all the powers. You cannot exclude him or refuse dialogue with him.’ While Washington urges Tokyo, Moscow, Beijing, even Canberra, to pressure Pyongyang, it is careful to avoid attributing any central role to Seoul; in fact the collective effort is designed to contain Seoul and to rein in its ‘Sunshine’ fantasies.

Not only do both old and new presidents in Seoul distance themselves from Washington’s hard line, but anti-American demonstrations draw huge crowds and, in various recent opinion surveys, more than half of people in South Korea profess ‘dislike’ for the US. Between 60 and 70 per cent say they no longer see North Korea as a threat, favour normalisation with it, and oppose US attempts at ‘containment’. Only 31 per cent support co-operation with the US. On 1 March 2003 Seoul hosted, for the first time, a joint, South–North ceremony to commemorate the 84th anniversary of the Samil movement, a peaceful uprising for national independence that was brutally crushed by Japan in 1919. The strengthening sense of shared past and common identity makes possible the sharing of dreams for the future. To Washington, these are ominous trends.

For the present, however, in South Korea the passions of war and Cold War are a thing of the past. While security is not neglected, both government and non-government thinktanks focus much of their effort on economic challenges. The state-funded Korea Development Institute (KDI) has a blueprint for generating a seven per cent annual growth rate in the North to bring per capita income to $1000 by 2008, feed the population, and attract the foreign capital necessary to rebuild the economic infrastructure. Outside the circles of government, one of the key figures responsible for hauling South Korea out of abject poverty only four decades ago now offers to help Pyongyang do likewise. O Wonchol, right-hand man of Park Chung Hee in the 1960s and 1970s and one of the principal architects of South Korea’s industrial transformation, is typical of those who, having lived through and played a core role in Cold War confrontation, seeks ways to help Pyongyang ‘normalise’ and develop. Pragmatism, a focus on economic and development problems, and a confidence that the North is not lunatic or beyond redemption, characterises such approaches. None of these qualities is evident in current official US thinking on North Korea.

The challenge for Kim Jong Il, writes O in the January 2003 issue of the monthly Wolgan Chosun, is to implement fundamental opening and reform and become a North Korean Deng Xiaoping. If Kim would learn from the experience of both South Korea and China, adopt an export-oriented national system (in place of the current ‘Juche’ policies of economic autarchy) and launch an all-out development drive, the prospects could be quite bright. O recommends that Kim take a leaf out of South Korea’s book and do what Park Chung Hee did in the 1960s: empower the country’s best technocratic brains to form a staff headquarters and lead an export revolution. The conditions for industrialisation in North Korea are favourable (all land is state-owned, labour is cheap and of high quality, minerals abound, educational levels are high). A million engineers and technicians should be sent abroad (many to South Korea, as part of the necessary division of labour and resources in a Korea-wide development formula) thus generating immediate revenues and reducing the surplus agrarian population. Most existing industrial plant, already obsolete, should simply be scrapped. The Rajin-Sonbong area (a remote site near North Korea’s borders with both Russia and China, developed under UN auspices in the 1980s but so far unsuccessful in attracting investment), should shift its focus from light to heavy and chemical, export-oriented industry, with a deep-water port dredged to service it and industrial water drawn from the Tumen River. To nurture the agriculture and construction sectors, fertiliser and cement plants should be given priority (and the environmentally disastrous ammonium sulphate fertiliser replaced as a matter of urgency by complex, more environmentally gentle substances). Pork, chicken and cattle industries should be encouraged for export to South Korea and Japan, the proceeds going to the import of wheat and rice. Adopting a peninsula-wide approach, plant in some sectors could be moved from South to North, one immediate candidate being the South’s currently surplus briquette plants, thereby solving the heating problem and arresting the chronic deforestation.

However, O recognises that the precondition for the success of all such policies must be the normalisation of relations with South Korea on the one hand and with the US and Japan on the other. This would open the path to low-interest international development funds from the Asia Development Bank and the World Bank. Whatever the viability of the specific proposals, the publication of such a paper in a leading Seoul journal, by one of those longest associated with building South Korea as a base of hostility to North Korea throughout the Cold War, attests to the emergence of a thoroughly post-Cold War national vision—one seriously at odds with the Washington agenda.

If North Korea looks odd, its goose-stepping soldiers, mass game mobilisations and bizarre messages to the world being virtually incomprehensible, it should be understood that its real uniqueness in the nuclear age consists in its having lived under nuclear threat for longer than any other nation. If a kind of collective neurosis, even insanity, has overtaken it as a consequence, that is not altogether surprising. Facing complex crises and a kind of exhaustion from decades of mobilisation, war, mass campaigns, fear, tension and failure, it now gives strong indication of a desire for change, not only in the extraordinary apology offered to Japan and the admissions given to the US late in 2002 but in the sweeping economic reform policies adopted since 2001. Taken together, these may be seen as suggesting that the much-vaunted monolith is cracking, and that powerful elements in that state do indeed wish to set aside the guerrilla model (secrecy, mobilisation, absolute loyalty to the commander, priority to the military), and pursue perestroika (for which the Korean word kaegon was coined in 2001). The September apology from Kim Jong Il, the attempted economic reforms, the moves to open road and rail links with South Korea (and to join the trans-continental system), and the growing web of economic co-operation with South Korea all point in the direction of Chinese-style market reforms and Russian-style perestroika.

Both the economic reforms and the diplomatic initiatives of 2001–02 seem, however, to have failed, and that failure has serious implications. Economic reform is impossible under conditions of continuing confrontation and deprivation of access to global financial and other markets. According to Chinese sources close to Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il has determined that without security guarantees and access to international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF (to which the US holds keys), social chaos and economic collapse are possible. The nuclear issue therefore cloaks a desperate cry for normalisation, especially with the US and Japan.

Although the humiliating apologies and explanations to the US and Japan in 2002 bore only sour fruit, an even greater challenge faces Kim Jong Il now: can he can bring himself to make a comparable, even more important but more difficult, gesture to South Korea? Can he apologise, in terms however general, for the violent and tragic past, thank the South Korean government and people for having turned from containment to ‘Sunshine’, absolutely rule out any repeat of fratricidal violence and begin charting the only possible course for survival—détente leading towards reunification? The cold fact is that North Korea has no allies, few options, little time. Only South Korea today views it with any sign of understanding, even sympathy. Only South Korea, for that matter, does not seem to fear it.

The recent outpourings of analysis and comment on the Korean problem around the world are characterised by righteous indignation and denunciation. They tend to be shaped, consciously or unconsciously, by an imperial frame of reference, insisting that Pyongyang submit to the will of the international community when what is really meant is the will of Washington. To the extent that one adopts an alternative, Korean, frame, and a Seoul-centred approach, the problem begins to look different. Nobody understands North Korea better, or, in the present climate, is more positive and encouraging about dealing with it, and has more to lose from getting it wrong, than the government and people of South Korea.

Years of ‘Sunshine’ and multiple layers of contact and negotiation have begun to thaw and open tracks across the long-frozen demilitarised zone that divides North and South. The challenge for Seoul is to build a buffer of protection and a bridge of communication linking Pyongyang to the world, while guaranteeing that international obligations are met and ensuring that Pyongyang’s legitimate security concerns are fulfilled—nothing less than internationalising ‘Sunshine’. Building on the trust that slowly accumulated during the Kim Dae Jung years, a recent (Nautilus Institute) paper by Alexandre Mansourov suggests:

President-elect Roh Moo-Hyun should use the current nuclear crisis as a unique historical opportunity to fundamentally reshape the inter-Korean relations and radically redefine the missions of the ROK-U.S. military security alliance in the future. President Roh needs to develop path-breaking strategic vision, which will guide the entire Korean nation in the South and North on the path toward national unification.
In response, North Korea would ‘invite a goodwill expert delegation from the Republic of Korea (ROK) to tour the Yangbyun nuclear complex to see that all 8017 spent fuel rods are still kept in place at the storage site and that the reprocessing plant is still shut down’. Mansourov continues:

Only the South has to take the North Korean demands seriously and, in turn, can guarantee the North’s security and assist in economic development. The only sacrifice the North will have to make is to accept some practical limitations on its sovereignty, including in such strategic areas as WMD [weapons of mass destruction] development … After all, if Korea is indeed one, as Koreans like to stress, it is all one nation, one family business.

He goes on to suggest a South Korean protectorate over the North in the realm of national security and foreign policy as the possible first step in a multi-stage process of peaceful transition to a unified Korean state. The idea of ‘protectorate’ has very negative and ill-omened historical associations in the Korean context, but the general thrust—the need to substitute a Seoul–Pyongyang frame for the Washington–Pyongyang frame of thinking about the Korea problem—makes good sense. Koreans themselves, North, South and overseas, will have to come up with an alternative to protectorate, some more historically sensitive formula that reflects legitimate concerns over face, history and correct relationships, so that through a deepening of North–South conversation and co-operation Korea can find a voice with which to address the world.

The problem today resembles the problem of 100 years ago. Modern Korean nationalism, frustrated by foreign intervention for over 100 years, remains a powerful force, and beneath the state structures of North and South lies a shared Korean-ness. From the Korean standpoint—whether Pyongyang or Seoul’s—the issue is one of sadae (reliance on the great, powerful friends and neighbours) versus juche (self-reliance). One hundred years ago, and at crucial times since then, many thought it wisest to look to great and powerful neighbours. That mind-set made possible a century of national division and catastrophic, internecine bloodshed. Facing unprecedented crisis now, South and North Korea have to find some way to trust each other more than they trust any great and powerful friends and neighbours. The stakes are even higher than they were a century ago, for this time the peninsula itself, and all its people, are at risk.

As the IAEA refers the issue to the UN Security Council, and as politicians, editorial writers and ‘experts’ crank up their denunciations of Kim Jong Il’s ‘evil empire’, we would do well to remember the lesson of history: a desperate, impoverished but proud people, backs to the wall, oil supplies cut off and sanctions threatened, is not likely to surrender. The best hope for a way out of the impasse is not likely to be pressure exerted through some combination of ‘5+2’ (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Japan and South Korea) or ‘5+5’ (the Security Council Five plus South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Australia and the European Union), but rather a deepening of the accommodation between Pyongyang and Seoul, based on a simple formula of ‘1+1=1’. However mathematically unorthodox, such a formula has an essential truth that Koreans at least recognise. On such an axis, aversion to violence, fraternal trust, and the historical memory of the disastrous consequences caused by past reliance on the intervention of powerful outsiders may, together, point a way forward.

In February, Roh Moo-Hyun assumed the presidency in Seoul. The achievement of a non-violent solution to the growing crisis will depend on the kind of initiatives he takes, the kind of consensus he can forge with Kim Jong Il’s regime and the kind of leverage he can exercise on both Washington and Pyongyang. 

Gavan McCormack is Professor of Pacific and Asian History in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University.



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